With each passing August, a new batch of simulation football titles arrives, leaving football gamers delighted with updated rosters, new tackles and more. Meanwhile, non-football gamers are generally left disgusted as the new crop of grid-iron games seem relatively unchanged in their minds. This year, however, gamers of all kinds can rejoice – the additions of online play and addictive role-playing elements to most gridiron titles make 2002 the best year for football games yet.

Paul Wong

EA takes Heisman in 2003: To the surprise of very few, EA Sports has once again delivered on all fronts with its titles, “NCAA Football 2003” and “Madden NFL 2003.” With EA’s football experience now in the teens, both games are as classic as a finely- aged wine, while still giving gamers the buzz provided by a Red Bull/vodka mix. Combining the basic gameplay elements of the “Madden” titles from the early ’90s with updated artificial intelligence and the most realistic character models ever in a football game, you can’t go wrong with EA’s latest and greatest crop of football titles.

In “NCAA Football 2003,” EA has gone the extra mile to not only deliver the best gameplay of any college pigskin title on the market, but also make gamers feel like they are actually at the helm of their favorite college team. This feat is accomplished primarily by a more enjoyable dynasty mode. Once again gamers will be able to take their school through 30 years of games and recruiting, but this time they will also be able to remember their greatest accomplishments by viewing their own personal trophy room. Even though this is a simple addition, gamers can’t help but smile when they look upon their various trophies ranging from the Heisman Memorial Trophy to the Little Brown Jug.

Outside of a fantastic dynasty mode, EA has put many extras into the game to make you feel like you are in your favorite college town. For instance, each time “NCAA” is booted up, gamers get a random introduction from students, cheerleaders and mascots from major universities across the country. Highlighting these amusing introductions is none other than Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr, who makes a tremendous appearance in an outstanding college football game. Finally, the game includes a hilarious mascot mode, where all of the players are in their school’s mascot costumes.

While “NCAA Football 2003” might deliver the best college football experience of any game on the market, it falls just short of its big brother, “Madden NFL 2003.” The most notable difference between the two games is artificial intelligence. Even though “NCAA” is much more challenging than it has ever has been, it proves to be a walk in the park next to “Madden.” Even on the normal difficulty setting, gamers will need near-perfect execution of their selected plays if they want to win. Fortunately, those lacking the coaching genius of a Jon Gruden or Steve Spurrier will get plenty of help this year from the big guy himself, John Madden. In the new mode Football 101, Mr. Madden gives instructions on how to read defenses, understand your plays and learn to time throws better. Additionally, the game features a very useful mini-camp mode. Here gamers will be able to go through various drills to improve their skills on the field.

Finally, new to “Madden” this year is online play. Using Sony’s Network Adapter (online play is expected on Xbox and GameCube next season), gamers can play anyone in the country with a modem or broadband connection. While the game plays extremely well online, there is obvious lag from time to time based on connection speed. Nevertheless, by adding online play, EA’s best just got better.

After EA, it appears that Sega Sports will also put a major dent in the football gaming market. Having teamed up with ESPN for its games “NFL2K3” and “NCAA College Football 2K3,” (available on Playstation 2, Xbox and GameCube) both games have the look and feel of your favorite ESPN shows by including Sportscenter updates and ESPN’s Bottom Line. And while both games have a new look from their predecessors, they still offer the fast-paced gaming experience that won over football fans tired of EA games during the days of the Dreamcast.

Sega grid-iron a close no. 2: While both of Sega’s football titles offer fast and furious gameplay, only “NFL2K3” comes packed with enough features to compete with rival EA. On top of its fantastic ESPN presentation, which is very refreshing after experiencing the music video approach of “Madden,” “NFL2K3” features a very attractive NFL Draft and scouting feature. Additionally, “2K3” might have the best sound ever in a football game, as its 5.1 sound puts all other football titles to shame. And last but not least, for the third straight year, Sega Sports’ football gem will include online play (Xbox and PS2 only).

As far as problems go for “NFL2K3,” there are very few wrinkles that need to be ironed out. The most notable is the difficulty gamers will face playing defense. Because of the game’s up-tempo style, gamers rarely have the chances they would have in “Madden” to make any impact in the secondary. This is due in part to an awkward button scheme on defense, where tackle and switch defender buttons are not placed next to each other. The only other glaring problem Sega needs to work on is the game’s character models. Not nearly as smooth as the ones found in EA games, “NFL2K3” players look almost like Frankenstein.

Meanwhile, with “NCAA College Football 2K3,” Sega Sports is still a season or two away from being an All-American. The game’s graphics, gameplay and dynasty mode all are in need of a little more spring practice. While the game plays similarly to “NFL2K3,” at many times the gameplay slows down or gets too. For this reason, college fans should stick with EA’s college title for this year. However, for those who prefer the brand of football Sega provides, it’s worth it.

989 trying to recapture glory: After EA and Sega’s offerings, the next best college and professional football games come by the way of Sony’s 989 Studios. This may come as a surprise to many; since the bestselling “NFL GameDay ’98,” 989 has been better known for making CD-shaped coasters than football games. Thankfully, Sony has taken such criticism to heart and has developed its latest Playstation 2 titles, “NFL Gameday 2003” and “NCAA Gamebreaker 2003,” from the ground up. Both titles show vast improvements in presentation, graphics and gameplay. While these features are not yet on par with the football titles from EA and Sega Sports, they do set new standards for tackling animations and feature an exciting three-man broadcasting booth. Even more compelling, Sony has successfully brought “NFL Gameday 2003” online, which has the most user-friendly online setup of any football game this year. So while Sony’s 989 games are quite far from the best, they still have come along way.

Microsoft benched: Coming off the bench as the least inspiring football title of the year is “Microsoft’s NFL Fever 2003.” While the game features beautiful graphics, smooth animation and a historical presentation similar to what you would expect from NFL Films, “Fever 2003” is plagued by some of the worst artificial intelligence in recent years. For anyone who has played “John Elway’s Quarterback” at the arcade or on the original Nintendo Entertainment System, “Fever” brings back memories of football games with absolutely no defense. To make things worse, “Fever” features the strangest player models of any football game outside of “Mutant League Football.” In fact, this title could be called “Mutant League 2003,” – the game’s chubby creatures and their flapping arms rarely seem human. Sorry Microsoft, this game needs a complete overhaul. Xbox users are much better off with either “Madden 2003” or “NFL2K3.”

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